Thai food is loaded with flavor. Considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, Thai dishes are both light and vibrant. Thai chefs layer five main flavor profiles—spicy, salty, sweet, sour and bitter—to create complex dishes that are mouth-popping, aromatic and, if you dare, hair-raisingly hot.
If you’ve ever been out for Thai food, you’ve likely come across Tom Yum soup and green papaya salad. In the markets of Thailand, you’ll also come across some pretty exotic fare. If you go, don’t miss the Chiang Mai Night Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Every Sunday, they set up a market along Ratchadamnoen Road that’s bursting with locals and foreigners, street performers and artists.
There’s so much out-of-this world food on hand from Sai krok, a delicious Thai pork sausage, to fresh durian, a local fruit. Just beware, it’s not unusual to find chingrit, or crickets, and other creepy-crawlies deep fried with kaffir lime leaves, chilies and garlic and eaten as a snack.
Whether the dish is familiar or unimaginable, Thai cuisine relies on a few essential ingredients that give it that distinctive Thai flavor. You can easily find all of these ingredients in Asian markets and some even in your local grocery store.
Coconut milk. The foundation of most Thai curries, coconut milk gives Thai curries a rich, sweet flavor. It’s made by pressing fresh, ripe coconut meat. There are exceptions: the spicy yellow Kaeng lueang curry is made without coconut milk.
Kaffir lime. This isn’t your average lime. Characterized by its bumpy exterior, the kaffir lime is super tangy and intense. The rind, fruit and leaves are used wildly in Thai cooking. Don’t try to swap in regular limes. They won’t have the same punch.
Lemongrass. The long stalks of the lemongrass plant give Thai food a slightly floral aroma and delicate citrus flavor. Look for stalks that are firm. They’ll be mostly green with a pale yellow or white base. If they’re limp or the outer leaves are brown, move on. That means they’re old.
Fish sauce. Vegetarians beware. For Thai people, fish sauce is as common as salt, so even meatless dishes tend to have a splash. Fish sauce, or Nam pla, is the juice that results from a long process of salting and fermenting small fish, such as anchovies or sardines. The result is a pungent, reddish-brown liquid that is used to flavor nearly everything.
Thai chilies. There are a host of native chilies that give brightness and heat to Thai. One of the most common is Prik kee noo (or bird’s eye chili), which literally means “mouse dropping chili.” As unappealing as that sounds, these tiny chilies, which turn from green to red as they ripen, pack serious fire. Most dinner tables in Thailand have jar of chopped Prik kee noo in fish sauce to use as a condiment.
Go ahead, try. Name me a dish more popular than pasta with red sauce. Everyone, everywhere seems to make it—and everyone, everywhere has their own take on it. Some people add pork, while others prefer ground beef or chicken livers. Folks in the UK call their version “spag bol,” while the Americans often serve theirs with meatballs.
But red sauce, officially known as ragù Bolognese, was born in Bologna, Italy. The satisfying simplicity of this thick and meaty sauce is the reason so many cultures have adopted it. Just be careful telling your favorite Italian that you have the best recipe. They’re sure to disagree.
Ragù Bolognese (also called just ragù or just Bolognese) is a staple of Northern Italy and locals take their sauce pretty seriously. In fact, in 1982 a historical preservation group in Bologna released the official recipe for ragù. If you want to go traditional, put away the chicken livers: the recipe contains only pancetta (aka pork belly) and skirt steak. And skip the spaghetti. According to the Italians, ragù is always served with the long, flat ribbons, known as tagliatelle.
Whether you want to play it time-honored or practice a bit of innovation, a few tips can help you get the most out of your ragù.
Always make extra. This goes for stocks too. You can store it in the freezer in freezer bags for up to 3 months.
Slow cook. This is one of those recipes you don’t want to rush. Simmering over low heat makes the meat super tender and brings out all the flavors of the sauce.
Dare to use dairy. Some Bolognese recipes call for milk and cream. Others even add parmesan to the pot. If you’re opting for cheese, add leftover parmesan rinds. During cooking all the bits of cheese will melt into the sauce. Discard rinds before serving.
Pick a pasta. The Italians may quibble, but I’ve eaten gorgeous ragù Bolognese served over fettucini and spaghetti, as well as tagliatelle. Just stay away from finer pastas like cappellini, which will be overwhelmed by the meaty sauce.
Now I’m hungry! Off to whip up a batch of my own Fettuccine Bolognese.
Tuscan cuisine is one of my favorites. It relies so heavily on local and seasonal produce, which is a code I live and cook by. And what gorgeous produce it is. In various seasons, Tuscany is showing off its latest harvest of white truffles, porcinis, wild asparagus, olives, kale, tomatoes, game meats or Chianti. The region boasts such a bounty that people sometimes call Tuscany “Italy’s orchard.”
In addition to being local and seasonal, Tuscan dishes are known for their simplicity. Tuscan cooks know that when you start with high-quality ingredients, you don’t need to fuss with them to make them shine. One of the classic Tuscan dishes is ribollita, a traditional Tuscan soup. Literally translated as “re-boiled,” ribollitas are thick, rich soups made with beans, vegetables and chunks of rustic bread that are cooked until bubbly hot and served drizzled with olive oil.
They’re delicious and they vary in ingredients depending on the restaurant or home you’re eating them in. In Tuscany recipes are passed down from generation to generation. This means, a chef whose nonna made ribollita with kale is serving you ribollita with kale. One thing they all have in common? You eat them slowly. Throughout Europe, people take time to eat. And there’s no place better than Tuscany to linger over a long lunch of gorgeous seasonal produce and a bit of Chianti Classico.
Put that lesson into practice over a bowl of Zuppa Ribolitta (Lentil Soup with Vegetables).